17th Century French philosopher Blaise Pascal famously wrote, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
Brevity takes effort. More effort than verbosity. We don’t realize this as kids. Take Lucy’s book report on Peter Rabbit. Yet as adults, it should be a skill we all aspire to, in writing, in wit, and in translation.
Corrine McKay in her blog Thoughts on Translation discusses the subtleties and sticking points of billing by the word. She mentions how an English translation of a text in a Romance language should be up to 30% shorter.
Still, I don’t know how many times I’ve reviewed translations from French or Italian or Spanish that are actually longer in English than the original! And as in Pascal’s case, I’m willing to bet these are often cases when the translator did not have, or spend, enough time to do it correctly.
Of course, there’s no incentive to whittle down a translation and make it sound like real English if we are paid by the number of English words. Everyone wants to spend less time making more money, not the reverse. Which is why billing by the number of source words will slowly win out, despite the fact that the legal translation industry — where imperfectly countable originals are still the norm — is adopting the practice more slowly.
Let’s put it this way. The following two translated sentences essentially say the same thing:
1. The members of the Committee executed the management of their tasks in a competent manner.
2. Committee members competently managed their tasks.
I would like to find a way to pay the translator of the second sentence more.